Bursting forth from the near future to provide producers and engineers with a new world of dynamic control, the Sonible Smart:comp 2 is an AI powered spectro-dynamic compression sequel.
As far as I recall the takeaway from Terminator 2: Judgement Day was that self-aware robots can’t be trusted and, given the chance, artificial intelligence units will crush our weak human skulls. But what if we replace the word ‘crush’ with ‘carefully compress’, and ‘skulls’ with ‘source material and mixes’?
Since the dawn of musical compression, humanity has been struggling with artefacts, colouration, and speed issues introduced by this manipulation. Now, often these ‘issues’, from slow opto release speeds, distortion, and pumping, have become cool ‘features’ and soundscaping tools that have shaped entire genres. But, what if we could use compression in its purest form; the kind that was originally an engineer’s hand-changing gain and dynamic range on the fly before it mushroomed into $20000 vintage units? And if we wanted the unit to get ‘dirty’ by choice?
Since around 2016, Sonible has been building intelligent sound manipulation tools. Smart:comp 2 is the latest in this array and an upgraded sequel to the 2019 model. Sonible’s product range spans far across the sound tool audioscape, reaching vastly from AI Reverb, EQ, limiters and beyond.
As time barrels forward we’ve seen AI algorithms having an increased effect on multiple aspects of our lives. And not just through creating hilariously weird artwork, or crude judgements against human art. Everything from medical prediction, stock trading, to driving has begun to involve AI elements, and it hasn’t turned into the Skynet-led wasteland predicted. Yet.
Anyway, let’s take a closer look at the Smart:comp 2. The unit has all the controls that would be familiar to any compressor user – Threshold, Ratio, Attack, Release, Wet/Dry, Make up gain, Frequency and External side chain. However, beyond these standards is where the Smart:comp 2 begins to get interesting. At the top of the unit sits a profile menu with a vast array of selectable options, or I guess in this case, compression scenarios.
From here a general profile for the audio source can be selected, from a kick drum, to a drum bus; from vocals, to speech, to a full mix, or to the suggested Universal mode if your source falls outside one of the 30 other profiles.
Hit the Learn button whilst playing your source material and the plugin will make judgements on your parameters, controlling Attack, Release, Threshold and Ratio. Opening up the Attack and Release parameters, the envelopes for these both can be fine-adjusted with times from 0 to 300ms plus Hold and Shaping options on the Attack, with Release times ranging from a swift 0ms up to a purposely sluggish 3000ms, with addition Shape and Hold options, plus Tempo sync ability if you really need to get your percussives pumping.
To the left of the display is an option for a User defined Compression Template where one of six transfer curves can be selected, and interestingly manipulated via the red graph-style feature for different pushes of compression, gating, and expansion.
This is probably one of the most interesting sonic sculpting features of the unit, and easily missed! And while you’re there be sure not to ignore the Mid/side capabilities of this thing, and the Channel link amount.
Down the bottom is where things start to get even more fascinating: this is where the Spectral Compression section resides. Purportedly an even-handed multiband component, the Spectral Compression feature splits the audio into 2000 separate frequencies to smooth out tonal imbalances, leading to an all around silkier compression experience with an additional hi/lo pass to select what frequency ranges are being affected.
Now, within the Spectral area comes a few extra features – a Clean/Dirty knob to control the Spectral Compression style, from transparent through to the punchiness of the Dirty setting. Next up is an overall level control for the Spectral Compression amount, and a tonal characteristic control, ranging from Dark to Bright. And let’s not forget, over on the right with the output metering section you’ll find a simple Limit switch which will cap things before you can clip at 0dB.
But how does this thing sound? Can the AI be fooled or defeated? Well, running a kick through this thing gives a good, smooth result. A 3:1 ratio, about 6.2 dB compression (which may be on the heavier side of things, depending on your program material), plus 57ms attack and auto release. Nice and even sounding.
Over a mellow 82bpm real life kit drum bus the AI selects a 1.8:1 ratio, about 5dB of compression, and an 86ms attack with an auto release. Not a bad conservative choice I say. Switching through Compression Templates some more exciting curves can be added with a little extra Mid Squeeze. Following with the Spectral Color leads to some interesting cymbals pumping in the Bright setting, whereas pushing it toward Dark leads to a nice heft ‘thwack’ from kick and snare.
On bass this thing opts for a nice conservative 2.4:1 with around 3.5dB reduction, a 31ms attack and an auto release again. Pushing the Spectral Style warms the bass up, and can easily push it to the farty zone.
Finally, let’s see what happens over an entire mix. We get a recommended ratio of 1.5:1, reduction of around 5dB in the heavier sections, a 120ms attack with an auto release again. The Spectral control section is much more apparent with a whole mix in its jaws, with Style nicely pulling everything into a sharper, punchier focus, and pushing Color toward the Bright range nicely pulls up treble material, especially in the release phase of compression.
The Smart:comp 2 indeed does take some guesswork out of compression – all the AI suggestions were pretty good and time saving. The display is intuitive and takes much of the mystery out of what the compressor is actually doing, plus having 8 slots available for A/B-ing is a pretty good expansion on the traditional 2-way A/B option. This could be a great dynamic tool for program material of all kinds, however if the goal is for a more extreme or interesting final product it may be wise to snatch control back and run this thing manually, at least momentarily, from the robots.
The Sonible Smart:comp 2 retails for €129 (approx. $189 AUD), is currently on special for €89 (approx. $130 AUD), and is easily available across the world wide web for both mac (including silicon native support) and Windows 10.
For more details head over to Sonible.com